20 March 2009

Another Day, Part 4

Starboard Stores and Cargo is a bustling place - think "Post Office," "UPS" and a touch of "You-Store-It." Portside S&C is more cargo-oriented, with admin offices, central control for their remote container-movers and so on, with just a small "post office" area; there's a smaller S&C office up and forward in passenger/commercial territory. But Starboard's where the action is and today was no exception. It's a happenin' joint, by starship standards. There were a handful of people in line at the service window; others were picking up inter-ship mail (there's a bit of it) at banks of mailboxes that wouldn't have looked out of place in any U. S. Post Office about 1960 and a few were at the gate for large parcels, picking or dropping off. Past the counter, I could see a couple of S&C guys - stocky, fit, young - and my friend from Security, working on one of the goofy overhead doors on the small storage areas for secure items.* She looked over, saw me and waved, then turned back to confer with the S&C techs. I didn't see anyone else I knew; so much for scoping things out!

The deck shimmied sideways, then rose and fell under my feet, or so it felt. A couple of the people in line staggered, one fell and everyone reached for the nearest handhold. "That's not a good sign," I muttered to myself.

The usual hubbub started up - "What happened," "You okay?" "Whoo!" and so on.

My friend turned and gave me the eye, walked to the parcel gate. "Hey! Bobbi, what just happened?"

When six feet of Security officer ask, you answer; besides, she's good folks. "I know as much as you, right now. Um, if I had to guess, the 'Drives fluttered and the ion engines compensated—" And then my pager went off, what a su-prise.

And the Chief's initials. Uh-oh. "Gotta git, T. Duty calls."

* * *

The Chief didn't have a lot to add to his page and what I'd felt; the #2 Phantasmajector had glitched off, hard, and wouldn't come back up. The 'Drives were idling; we'd dropped subliminal our last short superluminal hop on approach was a few days ago and they were only working enough to aid the ion reaction drive in making our inbound trajectory. But losing a third of the output suddenly is a bit much for the automatic systems to handle. They'll damp the lurch down enough to keep the ship in one piece, is all.

When I reached the 'Drive Room (in the goofy little electric car, after a quick jog - rest - jog across a mile of slidewalk and sundry utility corridors), it didn't smell right. Too much ozone and fried phenolic. But nary an overload showin' on the Christmas Trees (red/green fault/normal indicators on each big phantasmajector amplifier). #2 was sitting in BACK HEAT; I punched the LOCAL button on the panel, then STANDBY. Drive Amp Cooling came up, fine, and...

And nothin'. Next step should be green lights for FULL HEAT, DRIVER POWER, and after five minutes, HEATER DELAY and READY. Should. Didn't. If it wasn't so loud I had to wear earplugs, I'd probably be hearing' crickets.

Greeeeeeeat. Time to open 'er up and that's not a one-tech job; there are too many ways to A) harm yourself and B) more importantly, damage the 'Drive. Called the Chief: "It's not an easy one, Boss; I'll need another pair of hands. Maybe Dave."

"Yeah? I need him here, we lost half the MUXes in that lurch. I've got Johnny Zed on his way."

Double great. But the surest way to get on the Chief's bad side is to whine; he's fond of pointing out that we're in the results business, not the excuse business. Besides, how dead could I get? "That'll be fine, Boss! Lookin' forward to it."

* There's quite a complicated little arrangement of springs, latches and weights to switch these overhead doors between zero-G and normal, 1-G acceleration function. It breaks frequently. I'm startin' to develop a theory about the real reason why HAL was so weird about the pod bay doors.

18 March 2009

Another Day, Part 3

Doc looks less like a former high-ranking SF officer than anyone I know — approximately egg-shaped and nearly as bald, he moves with the care and economy of someone who's put in a lot of zero-G time. He's 70 but looks 50. Scuttlebutt is he was Regular Army, dirtside, before he went into medicine. Or maybe not so regular — some kind of Special Forces. Given the black-budget nature of every part of Space Force, it's plausible. All I know for sure is there's very little that surprises him and he knows a lot more than he lets on.

"This is about the Schramm and the Bearcat, isn't it?" I asked.

Doc nodded.

My first two Engineering berths — I was just a 'Drive-tender aboard the Schramm, back when they were still required, though a tug like that ship about had to have 'em: tugs have massively powerful 'Drives in a small, stout frame and when things get out of control -- well, they'd better not, is all. Schramm hauled bulk ores, entire asteroids, for the refinery ship Wayrue. Tenders rode out the Jumps in heavily shielded compartments just off the four 'Drive rooms, ready to cope with breakdowns on a moment's notice. One fine Jump, a rigger disconsolate, drunk or just plain crazy had sat himself on the 'Drive field emitter for my set of 'Drives and when the PAs shut down on excessive reflected power, it was already too late. I'd been first to find him and had spent the next hour all alone with the remains in the airlock.

The Bearcat incident was more recent, a cargo-hauler I signed aboard after a year spent teching at a factory dirtside (Kansas II, for an embarrassingly large salary. I learned to love barbecue and found out the bottom of a gravity well wasn't for me). It was smallish, short-hop rig compared to Lupine, looping freight Kansas II - Honeyweal - Blizzard, oil, grain and heavy machinery mostly, but "smallish" means a couple of miles across and operating at seven-eighths of a standard G, while "mostly freight" included a dozen passenger rooms. A Junior Jayhawk fratboy had bribed his way onto the hull and headed out to climb the 'Drive mast on a bet. He made it about halfway up, too. I headed the gang that found him, after his buddies realized something had gone terribly wrong and went to the Captain. I'd worked my way up to Chief Engineer by then but after the inquest, all the officers and section chiefs found their contracts terminated. Including me. Had it not been for Lupine's previous Second Officer's willingness to look beyond that, I might still be cooling my heels under too much blue sky.

Between those two incidents, one of them about as career-limiting as they come, I was the closest Lupine came to having an expert on death by 'Drive field. It wasn't much of an honor. I looked at the monitor again — it had cycled to a wider and thankfully pre-autopsy shot — and noticed the name stenciled across the pressure-suit overalls: EMILY L. "Dam- doggone it, that's not Em, not even close..."

"Nope. DNA's no match to any crew, subcontractor or passenger."

Mike added, "And I don't want you telling anybody that, either."

"You think we've got hitchers?" I had to ask.

"Not guessing. Officially? No. No way."

Doc cleared his throat. "Impossible her presence aboard may be, that young woman is dead and I think you can now be quite, quite certain how she died. 'Why' is your department. Although...?"

Mike snorted. "You guys read too many detective novels. Yeah. Sure. If I need help, I'll call ya. Bobbi, you too."
* * *

I found myself "downtown" with nearly two hours to kill before my shift. No point in heading back to my quarters...so why not wander over to Starboard Stores & Cargo and see if there were any interesting tales making the rounds. If we did have optimists shipping themselves as cargo, S&C might have an inkling. You can travel in a pressure-tight cargo container; even back on Earth, it happens more often than you'd think. Strictly against regulations, ridiculously dangerous and uncomfortable to boot, but people do it.


17 March 2009

Another Day, Part 2

I spent the first half of that fateful day struggling with paperwork and the second half in the 'Drive Room at the far end of the ship; we'd managed to get the #2 power amplifier tamed but #3 had been steadily losing output over the past month and was now below the 80% level, something that was sure to be an issue on the Inspection. ("Inadequate safety margin," and never you mind that one power amplifier alone can form and control the 'Drive bubble, though I admit things might get a little crunchy out at the extreme width of the hull).

That meant I missed the first official announcement, which contained nothing rumor hadn't already covered, and the first hint from the medical subcontractor (one tiny "hospital" and two clinics, Central, Port and Starboard respectively. You might remember my experiences with the slow-moving staff at Portside Med. when I got tapped for a random alcohol test[1]) that the unusual death might be even more so. The first clue I had was my phone ringin' at Much-Too-Early-Ayem. I slapped the button in the dark and muttered, "Association for the Prevention of Sci-ence," picking up intelligibility along the way.

"What? Bobbi, it's Mike."

"Sorry. Um, Mike?" (Still not quite awake).

"Sheriff Mike."

Now I was awake! Sat up in my bunk, still in the dark, "Uh-oh. Look, if that idiot in E&PP is still freaked out about the shooting range—-"[2]

"Not that! No, look, what do you know about the body Greggo found?"

"About that much. Why? ...Unh, you think I...?

"No. Geez. Listen, I need your help with this. 'Drive radiation is fatal, right?"

Ohcrap. "Eventually. It'd take one helluva— You think that's what killed her?"

"That's what doc Poole and I are tryin' to find out. Your boss said to ask you. How soon can you be at my office?"

Thanks, Chief. "About—" I ran a hand through my hair, tangled "—Can I have an hour?"

"Not really. Need you soon as you can."

My quarters are about halfway between the Tech Core and the 'Drive Room and a bit to Port; it's a fifteen-minute trip if you take time to grab coffee and a roll on the way. I didn't; twenty minutes after hanging up, I was in Mike's office, wondering if there was a coffeepot close by. I didn't wonder for long; Doc Poole called up some images on Mike's computer and swiveled the monitor toward me.

"Have a look."

I wished I hadn't. The first picture was just head and shoulders and her face looked...cooked. The display cycled through several more views. "Doc!"

"That's 'Drive-field exposure, isn't it?"

"If she didn't jeep the interlocks on a walk-in microwave oven, that's the only other thing I know that'd do it. But Doc, surely you've seen this before?"

"Never this bad — and that sailor lived."

Doc's another Space Force "legacy," but the good kind — he's seen just about everything.

1. We have a "no-martini lunch" rule. Also not for breakfast. Off-duty, if you wanna get wasted, have at it.

2. Another story to be told. The Lupine being ex-Space Force, of course there is a range. It took a lot of careful work to convince the Starship Company to open it up to anyone other than Mike's staff and some crewmembers are still wigged out to have learned there are g-u-n-s aboard, let alone that not all of 'em are in the hands of Security.

13 March 2009

Another Day, Part 1

Of course it was Greggo that found her. Even though he missed the day Emily got stuck outside thanks to his pressure suit failing the checkout, he put in more vacuum time than anyone else on the E&PP gang. And he was harder on his gear than any ten other guys -- but he got results.

Still, it was the kind of thing nobody expects: a dead body on the hull. There's no procedure for it.

Rumor spread across the Lupine at the usual speed. It took longer to reach me because I was fretting over our upcoming Triennial Inspection, not at all fun despite being a little less than a make or break matter (not to mention both annual and random) than they were prior to the Arrangement. These days, a retired Space Force engineering officer comes about and spends a week going over the 'Drive, control systems and related widgetry, while his equally-retired counterparts check out Power and Environment & Physical Plant; at the conclusion of it, we get a checklist and whatever's not up to spec must be put right. In the bad old days, right after privatization, there would have been fines and Official Reprimands and worse for any deviation; and they tell me it was even rougher when Space Force ran the whole shootin' match. Still, I had checklists of my own, a long list of we'll-clean-it-up-laters to put right and a deadline thirty days earlier than I had thought. So I was just the least busy and fixing to become more so.

News of the appalling find derailed that train of thought for me but as the Chief pointed out, it was not Engineering's problem. This, as it turned out, was wishful thinking; but neither of us knew it at the time.